Evolving Waste Management Systems in Rural Alaska
Climate change is compounding the difficulties of building and maintaining critical infrastructure
The rapidly warming climate is having negative impacts on rural communities in Alaska, where there are already significant barriers to creating the necessary infrastructure for solid waste and sewage management.
“Negative ‘norms’ have been occurring over decades in communities that still struggle with lack of basic sanitation services [in more than thirty villages in Alaska],” explains Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer, the senior project manager of Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s (ANTHC) Division of Environmental Health and Engineering.
“The impacts of climate change only compound the inadequate housing, aging infrastructure, and lack of basic services, which in turn affects all aspects of human health in indigenous communities.”
“With no back-haul systems for waste in place, the current system can be impacted by climate events that can cause cross-contamination to the surrounding healthy ecosystems. This in turn could create a negative ripple effect. Location of these waste management systems are being closely considered when communities relocate due to climate change impacts to help mitigate the risks to human health.”
According to ANTHC Director of Community Environmental Health Michael Brubaker, “In many communities, changes in the land caused by thawing or flooding has resulted in impacts to critical infrastructure, such as foundations, containment walls, fences, pipelines, and roads. This results in damage and disruptions of service and in some cases breaches and spills.
“Extreme rain events can cause ponds and other containments to flood. There are also upstream impacts such as a longer season when the liquid waste is not frozen, and thus more likely to spill, or mid-winter warm spells which can cause stored waste to thaw, leak, or spill. In some cases, communities are having to abandon or relocate waste disposal facilities.”
Changing shorelines in places such as Newtok only accentuate the problems surrounding harsh weather conditions and rugged terrain that are already obstacles to developing waste systems.
“Because the riverbanks are eroding and sloughing off into the water, it’s making it difficult to land a barge there,” Ahtna Global Director of Construction Ronald DesGranges says. “Getting equipment in there and containers to package the waste is difficult.”
In October, DesGranges’ team finished staging a Newtok project to remove solid waste from the site as the village continues preparations to relocate to Mertarvik.
Since 1994, residents of Newtok have been working toward leaving the slow-moving disaster zone—dozens of feet of the community’s shoreline are being lost every year to erosion. DesGranges says his team has already demolished several structures in the community that were hanging over the bank into the Ningliq River.
Though they were able to identify places to land barges to get equipment onshore, wet conditions forced the team to halt work until early next year.
“We’re going to go back in February when everything’s frozen, and we can walk around out there… and be able to clean up the landfill with our excavator and load those containers with the refuse and white goods [sinks, refrigerators, and similar items] that they have out there,” DesGranges says.
An Ahtna crew backfills around a 1,000 gallon insulated septic tank on the ANTHC Koyukuk sewer and water project.
Even before the erosion issues, there were a few roadblocks to implementing an effective waste management system in Newtok. One is a lack of clean fill to bury refuse as part of a landfill system.
For decades, Newtok has gone without infrastructure development as resources were allocated to other rural communities that weren’t under the threat of being washed away by climate change.
However, in 2019 a Class III Landfill was constructed near Mertarvik. The landfill stores all types of solid waste, including household garbage and dried human waste from the separating toilets in the community, says Schaeffer of ANTHC.
“I flew over the landfill area, and it looks completely legit, as far as any landfill I’ve seen,” DesGranges says. “It’s just as good as Bethel or anywhere else that has an organized structure.”
But waste at the Newtok site still needs to be addressed; with the community moving to Mertarvik, the Ahtna team is responsible for removing refuse from Newtok, placing it in metal shipping containers, and transporting it to Seattle for processing.
An in-house industrial hygienist for Ahtna will conduct a hazardous waste survey for the team to determine what kind of waste is present and how it needs to be handled, DesGranges says.
Ahtna subsidiary Ahtna Engineering is upgrading and implementing systems in Levelock.
“At Levelock, Ahtna Engineering supplied and installed wells, septic systems, arctic water service, filtration and treatment systems, water heaters, and framed raised floors and interior walls for ten residences in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska,” Ahtna Environmental Senior Business Development and Marketing Group Manager Lori Kropidlowski explains.
“Ahtna worked on-site with local community members to bring sustainable running water and sanitary systems to residences, some of which previously had none,” Kropidlowski says.
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Access to clean water, which is often connected to a community’s ability to safely dispose of waste, is crucial.
Schaeffer gives the example of human waste left outside homes to freeze in plastic bags during the winter months. In cases where these bags are damaged prior to spring thaw, the waste can leak out of the bag and seep into the ground. The contaminants can then end up in ground water systems, spreading throughout the community and into structures.
ANTHC has installed separating toilet systems to mitigate this risk.
But the benefits of access to clean water go beyond just sanitation. “Water is needed for many purposes, including drinking, cooking, cleaning, and personal hygiene,” says Meda Snyder, CDT project manager for ANTHC’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. Snyder notes that various health studies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports point toward water quantity and quality being a critical factor in the health of rural Alaska villages.
The goal with these infrastructure projects is to increase access to clean water for the entire community, Snyder says. “If they’re not put into place, what we will expect to see is increased healthcare costs with the aging infrastructure.”
A drill rig is used to put in a well for the ANTHC Koyukuk sewer and water project completed by Ahtna Environmental.
Snyder says there are many elements that must be considered when designing projects in rural Alaska.
Designing around aging infrastructure, costs related to ongoing maintenance for the community, non-traditional home design, and thawing permafrost are just a few aspects that must be thought about during the initial planning phases.
“Those are some of the challenges that we take into consideration with the communities in moving forward from kind of a preliminary engineering to design and construction,” Snyder says.
Last year, Ahtna Environmental also finished a $2.4 million project that brought sustainable running water and sanitary systems to Koyukuk residents who previously had to haul water, use honey buckets, and commute to the local washateria, Kropidlowski says.
“Aside from just the outhouse use, some of the distances that folks need to travel—specifically in Koyukuk—to the washateria to get a jug of water, it’s pretty far,” says Andy DuComb, an environmental engineer at Ahtna Environmental. DuComb says that for older residents the trek to the washateria in the winter can be especially tough.
“Having water in the house is just going to be an astronomical increase in the quality of life,” DuComb says.
He adds that in both Koyukuk and Levelock there were the additional challenges of limited information about existing utilities, mandatory sanitary offsets, and remote conditions.
“In many communities, changes in the land caused by thawing or flooding has resulted in impacts to critical infrastructure, such as foundations, containment walls, fences, pipelines, and roads. This results in damage and disruptions of service and in some cases breaches and spills.”
“Ahtna worked on-site with local shareholders to minimize the disturbance of construction and new infrastructure on residents and to optimize the productivity of the systems,” DuComb says. “Each well was drilled to a depth of approximately two hundred feet and through permafrost.”
Permafrost was one of the many construction obstacles overcome during the project, says Daniel Caldwell, senior construction project manager for Ahtna Infrastructure & Technologies.
“If there’s permafrost, ADEC requires a separation of 6 feet between impermeable layers and the drain field,” Caldwell explains.
Caldwell says the permafrost at the site is discontinuous.
Just 10 to 15 feet away from where soil samples were taken by the design team, Ahtna would go to install a system but would run into permafrost.
“Then, we had to do a design change on the fly and change the system out in the field,” he says.
The permafrost levels at Koyukuk prevented the team from leveling the site, which interfered with the installation of a gravity-fed system. Instead, they needed to build a pressure-mound system.
A typical sewage system allows gravity to move waste from the home into a tank and then out of the tank to a drain field. In a pressure-mound system, the fluids are still moved down into the tank by gravity but are then pumped uphill to the drainage field.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Logistics are another hurdle facing those concerned with infrastructure in rural Alaska.
“In Western Alaska and up and down the Ningliq and the Yukon, that’s what it’s all about; the majority of the cost is the logistics, getting in and out,” DesGranges says.
“We’ve just gotten so good at the logistics. It’s not about us having our own barge or anything like that, it’s about knowing who is where and what freight is going upriver for what job and capitalizing on those situations.”
Though the projects come with hefty price tags, like most infrastructure development projects, they are important steps toward securing communities.
But it’s about more than individual communities, says ANTHC’s Schaeffer.
“When negative habits are formed over time, human behavior changes and those negative habits are compounded. With no back-haul systems for waste in place, the current system can be impacted by climate events that can cause cross-contamination to surrounding healthy ecosystems,” Schaeffer says.
“This in turn could create a negative ripple effect. Location of these waste management systems are being closely considered when communities relocate due to climate change impacts to help mitigate the risks to human health.”
For Native communities, the impact of climate change goes beyond physical health, Schaeffer says.
“With climate impacts more frequent and unpredictable, rural communities are seeing a disruption in all aspects of health,” she says.
There is a mental toll on communities that are unable to carry on traditional celebrations due to lack of subsisted foods, a physical toll due to barriers to traditional hunting practices, as well as a spiritual toll.
An Ahtna crew installs Arctic water service with flex connection.
The needs of each village in rural Alaska vary, so it naturally follows that the right solution for each location does as well.
“It’s really dependent on each village and their differing geography, water quality, population, and permafrost. This isn’t an exhaustive list but some of the challenges ANTHC faces when designing and constructing rural Alaska water and sewer projects,” Snyder says.
Whether relocation or upgrading existing infrastructure is the right choice for a community depends on a multitude of factors.
For communities such as Newtok, which is quickly eroding off the Alaska coast, relocating to a thoughtfully designed and developed new village was the only practical solution. For others, such as Koyukuk and Levelock, investing in waste disposal systems and clean water in their current village best serves the community.